Muscle Spotlight: Erector Spinae

In a previous blog post, I highlighted the quadratus lumborum, its function in the body, and why it is a frequent culprit for low back pain. In this post, I’ll be discussing its cousins, the erector spinae. The erectors are actually a group of three muscles which extend from several attachment points along the pelvic girdle to the cervical vertebrae, and even to the occipital bone at the base of the skull. The three muscles are the iliocostalis, the longissimus, and the spinalis, each of which is divided into several portions, based off of where they originate and insert along the spine and other bones. As you can see below, they have multiple of these attachment points all up and down the back.

Erector spinae anatomical diagram.

As their name implies, the erectors act as important postural muscles meant to keep the spine erect and the core of the body stabilized. However, they frequently become overstretched due to such things as poor posture while sitting for lengthy periods of time. This causes them to become fatigued, sore, and tight, which in turn can lead to backaches and headaches. In addition to this problem, weakened erectors may end up causing back injury when they are unable to do their share of the work from being overfatigued. The erectors and quadratus lumborum work together to straighten the back from a bent-over position, as discussed in a previous post. If the erectors are weak, they will not be able to take on the burden that they are designed for and the quadratus lumborum will end up taking on more than it is designed to handle in an attempt to compensate. This means that low back pain is a frequent accompaniment to tight, fatigued erector spinae.

Headaches are another common symptom of tight erectors, as the spinalis extends up to the base of the skull. If that muscle is tight, it can cause the infamous tension headache from which so many suffer. Because the spinalis is so intertwined with other muscles around the neck and base of the skull, massaging all of the muscles in the area will likely bring major – sometimes instantaneous – relief.

Here we can see the relation of the erector spinae to the other muscles that help support the head and back and contribute to their motion.

Here we can see the relation of the erector spinae to the other muscles that help support the head and back and contribute to their motion.

Fortunately, despite being “deep” back muscles located under several other layers, the erectors are rather easy to locate, due to their proximity to the spine. That, and the fact that they are easy to palpate from being so tight, means that massage therapists, physical therapists, and other bodyworkers usually have an easy time locating and treating these muscles. In combination with treating the other postural muscles that are in close proximity to the erectors and work in concert with them, such as the multifidi and rotatores, most people find relief from their back pain and headaches.